Rare Books: How a Filthy Habit Got Too Clean

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

The reports have come in from field reporters who attended the San Francisco and Los Angeles Book Fairs, and the word on the street is not good. On the first weekend in March, I had to see for myself. I made my annual trek to the Washington DC Book Fair. As expected, foot traffic sales are almost non-existent. Sales between dealers have slowed. Dealers and collectors are kicking the tires and wondering how much you are going to stick to the sticker price. The rare book industry is sick and the case sounds terminal. What went wrong and what is the cure?

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, Obelisk PressThe boom in the modern firsts market coincided with the Internet boom. New money, new collectors, new distribution channels. It was a piece of cake to pair up a baby boomer with a book he read as a child at exorbitant prices. Remember that game-changing copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that sold for $33,000 at auction? All of a sudden copies of that book crawled out of the woodwork at ridiculous prices and everybody tried to put their kid through college on the strength of that book. Pissing matches like this one have existed as long as the book trade, but never before had a pissing contest been taken as the gospel on real value. It was always acknowledged as a blip on the radar screen, an anomaly in the history of book dealing. Unfortunately, in the internet age, the sense of history has disappeared from the book trade. With the influx of internet databases and book scanners, few in the book trade have what really matters: long-term experience with the value of books. An ISBN number is never going to replace 30 years of handling books. Yes — handling books. You have to touch the merchandise and for years. How does this copy of the Obelisk Press Tropic of Cancer compare to the other three you have handled in your lifetime? Comparing against an Abebooks Tropic of Cancer means nothing. This is comparable to people who use hand sanitizer all the time. The book trade is just not familiar with dirt and grime anymore. Book dealing is archeology and many book dealers have forgotten the value of getting dirty.

So have book collectors. Include me in this group. When I started collecting in 1993, I filled out all the want lists at the book fairs; I got hold of all the catalogs I could (and I even paid for them); I called dealers on the phone every month or so. I made my weekly trip to the rare bookstores like clockwork. I never drew up a want ad in AB Bookman for that was the dark ages even by 1993. My coming of age as a collector was a period of transition from hard copy to digital. I got lazy and promiscuous. By the turn of the century it became easy to satisfy one’s book-collecting needs by getting online. If I wanted something, I searched for it. Usually more than a single copy came up. I compared them and purchased one. What happened to loyalty, fidelity and building relationships? Ebay, Abebooks, and similar sites turned the book collector into a gigolo selling his business to the lowest bidder. One-night stands replaced lifelong relationships. For centuries, a book dealer and a book collector would work together to build a meaningful collection. The relationship was not one of a john and a high-priced call girl, but that of an old married couple. No more. Now a book collector feels that he is a mark if he pays the asking price and a fool if he expresses loyalty to a small handful of dealers. Ebay has contributed to this trend. It is all about the haggle and squeezing the price down. I find myself returning to domesticity, to establishing relationships. Clearly I do not want to pay more than I have to, but at this stage in my collection, I realize that the most important book is the next book, the future acquisition, not the current purchase. The key is to get the phone call (better than the email) when the truly amazing item comes in. By maintaining a good relationship with a dealer, you are buying the opportunity for future acquisitions. A great collection is not about the here and now, but about the assurance of access to quality material.

William S. Burroughs, Minutes to Go, Two Cities Editions, 1960In addition, the physical act of book collecting has gotten too sanitary. No more digging in basements, garages, and attics. No more yard sales, library sales, and church sales. The books come to you with the push of a button. It is too easy and book collectors are getting sloppy. Nobody has any idea of what a book is worth from memory. In the days before iPhones, if you were in a rare bookstore and saw a copy of Minutes to Go signed by Burroughs, you froze. Was this a fair price? Was this a steal or were you being robbed? Recently I went to a bookstore to take a look at boxes and boxes of uncatalogued books. It was like Christmas Day. Box after box of little mags and mimeos. After six hours of digging and getting dirty, I had my pile and the time had come to price my treasure trove. The dealer suggested a radical idea. Why don’t I price these off the top of my head? No internet, no scanners, no Abebooks. In return, I had to do the same. This is bookselling and book collecting without a net (pun intended). I got some very good deals and I got burned a couple of times. I was happy with how it turned out and it was a return to how bookselling used to be done. In the age of instant access, book collectors have never had access to more information — and ironically, they have never been more uninformed. They literally know nothing, and the industry has suffered for it.

In my opinion, the members of the rare book industry — book dealers and collectors — have forgotten who they are. In the 1990s, dealers got friendly with the coolest kid in school: the dot-com millionaires, the nouveau riche, and the movie stars. It was shooting fish in a barrel pawning off clothing and dust jackets to people like Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. Soon the rare book dealers wanted to become stars themselves. This is the Antiques Roadshow syndrome. Pawn Stars. American Pickers. I have never seen anything as stupid as these last two shows. They throw money around like drunken sailors. They give dealers and book scouts a bad name. Their negotiating skills are pitiful and the idea of having a camera follow you while you make a deal is downright revolting. No doubt legions of couch potatoes watch this crap, get off their asses, and go into their garage or attic to pull down some books. They drag themselves to the computer and discovered that The Catcher in the Rye is worth thousands. Problem is, their copy is a book-of-the-month club or is a reprint without a dust jacket or has grape jelly on it.

Somewhere along the way collectors have lost their imaginations. Collecting became an investment not a useless expenditure. More like speculating in stocks than buying a sports car, or more to the point, recreational drugs. Once book collecting becomes a decision based more on financial gain than on impulse (addiction or obsession), all the fun and creativity go out of it. The highspot collector took over the industry, replacing the obsessive-compulsives pursuing a personal demon. Collectors wanted to fit in with the crowd, to be cool, to have the popular books. The Burgess 99, the Connolly 100, the Roth 101. Collectors point-and-clicked and, if they had the cash, quickly checked books off the list. This is not book collecting, it is shopping for groceries.  

D.A. Levy, The North American Book of the DeadThe great collections gather the odd, the forgotten, or the unwanted. From dirty mimeo to outsider art, the best collections are messy, hands-on, and organized chaos. The collector becomes a part of the collection; his interest and knowledge of the collection holds it together and helps give it meaning. The collection becomes an archive. The intellectual capital associated with the collection is its financial value.  

Getting stars in one’s eyes also made dealers lose sight of the fact that a healthy book trade is not built on Johnny Come Latelys and quick scores. The rare book industry was built to serve the kid who got stuffed in his locker — the loser, the loner, and the luddite. After two years of working at a used bookstore, I had never seen such a collection of misfits, the maladjusted and misanthropes, as those that roamed or should I say stalked the stacks of the bookstore. It was the same guys with bad breath, bad teeth, and dirty fingernails every day. Sure a soccer mom came into the shop around Christmas to kick the tires a bit with the naïve thought that her husband would like a first edition instead of the latest electronic gadget. But once she saw the price of a Hemingway first edition she walked out the store and drove to Best Buy. But the obsessive compulsives, the neurotics, those truly ill with bibliomania, like drug addicts, may bitch and moan at the price, but eventually they pay up. Their libraries are not safe-deposit boxes, but, like Mad Ludwig’s Castle, monuments commemorating their illness. Such collectors will always scrounge up the money to get their fix, provided the price is reasonable and reflects its historical value. These addicts have been using for a long time and they know the market. The future of an ailing book industry is with the sick and diseased that the industry has left behind with aggressive, shoot-the-moon pricing that establishes leaps in price not slow accumulation in value. In another article I compare this to the real estate bust which was directly tied to bloated appraisals. We come full circle back to the Antiques Roadshow phenomenon with its appraisal format.

With exceptions, the rare book industry has never been glamorous. It is more along the lines of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs. Cramped quarters, musty smells, long hours alone cataloging and indexing. The dirtiest aspect of the job has always been the dealers themselves. Ill-mannered, ill-shaven, ill-tempered. Customers, no measure of cleanliness themselves, would walk into a bookstore with a bit of fear. You never knew if the dealer would greet you with a handshake or the finger, but without a doubt the dealer knew what you collected and looked out for your interests. Somewhere in all the mess he had your book. But the dealer has cleaned up his act. Unlike a cluttered bookstore, the internet has an order to it. Abebooks is a pull technology. Beside the considerable cataloging (a lost skill, by the way; in an era of cut-and-paste and bibliographic scanning, the book description as art form is dead and gone), the book collector does much of the work and gets captured in the web whereby the spider comes out of his trap door with the book. What happened to the days of the pusher? Book dealers aggressively filling collectors’ want lists, developing new areas of collectibles, like Ken Lopez with Vietnam Literature and Native American Literature, or guiding and mentoring young collectors in building their collections.  

Loomis Dean, William S. Burroughs in Bookstore, 1959, ParisThere are exceptions and this new breed of dealers is merging old-school salesmanship with cutting-edge technology. Twitter, blogs, and web sites — these are the new tools, but the bibliographic knowledge must be there to know how best to wield them. Currently many of the listings online are the equivalent of spam and junk mail. The dealers of tomorrow will have to make something solid out of the online bookstore. I am not saying there will have to be a return to the brick-and-mortar store, but a bookseller’s web site, catalogues, and publications will have to become more expansive, attractive, accurate, and informative warehouses for the storing of information, which will compliment the warehouses storing books. There must be a return to the traditions of the past: well-researched and well-produced catalogues, community building, and both online and offline publishing enterprises. As I have written elsewhere, the legendary bookstores are about more than books.

But most importantly dealers need to get their hands dirty and aggressively seek out the unwashed that they have left behind. The time has come for the rare book industry to get out of the penthouse and get back in bed with the inmates of the asylum. The cure to a sick industry lies with the terminally diseased, i.e. those who will collect until they die because collecting is their way of life, not with courting those who have caught a passing bug and will move on once the sickness has passed through their system.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 15 March 2010.

9 thoughts on “Rare Books: How a Filthy Habit Got Too Clean

  1. The bookshops here in London are all doing it tough at the moment, and many have closed or are in danger of closing. Too many to mention.

    Yet clicking through internet pages simply does not even compare with stopping by a good bookshop at the end of the day. As evening falls and the light shifts, the conversation expands in unexpectedly and delightful directions and you end up buying something you would never find online: this is my idea of a fix.

    In Melbourne, Perth, London, Paris and Delhi I have found it to be the same thing; the second hand bookshop is the place you go for good conversation, good connections and a pick-up for your soul, and I don’t meen the book, although that can be a pick-up for the soul as well of course.

    Yet at the end of the day people have to get out there and visit these shops or they will die. If you feel you ‘don’t have the time’, then it’s probably time you got rid of the TV, edited your address book or something; time to visit bookshops might well be more important!

    But lets face it, this internet has us by the balls. Enjoy the beautiful secondhand bookshops of the world while they are still around. Sadly it won’t be forever.

  2. Mr Lightfoot, which stores were you referring to when you mentioned Perth? There were a couple of individual stores I knew of, but I thought they had gone out of business.
    For the best second-hand book fix I have to wait until I’m back in Melbourne. Perth has too much sunshine and too much good weather – reading is a rare pastime here…

  3. I lived in Perth for a long time and the best bookshop by far was always Mostly Books, which was last on the Guildford road heading out of east Perth and on the left hand side a bit before the Bid Buddhist Temple there. It is (or was?) run by the one and only ex-Londener Don. I hope he is still going. Don’t expect to find him on the web (Don thinks it’s bit of a con last I heard), but he would be worth seeking out. He used to be next door to Mainly Books on Bulwer St. They are worth a visit and should know Don’s current whereabouts. In fact please do seek him out let me know if he is still around as I very fond of him!

    Then you need to get down to Centaur books in Bayswater, around the corner from Plastic Passion records. Hans the German will no doubt start banging on about the beauty of various typefaces and forms of printing given the slightest chance…

    In Fremantle there is Penny who runs Magpie books at the markets on the weekend. She will be able to tell you where Bills shop is in Fremantle; I can’t remember. Althjough be very polite with Penny and show a little interest in her shop or she may not tell you! Bill used to have a market stall outside the WA art gallery, and when I left 3 years ago he had recently opened a huge and fantastic new shop, but I can’t remember it’s name I’m afraid.

    Then of course there is Elizabeths. People have various winges about her shops, but the the room upstairs at her Fremantle town square shop is stuffed with good things cheap as chips.

    Hope this helps. Let me know how you go!

  4. dont see the point in bookcollecting somethings…..books(the real one) are beautiful…but the information out of them counts….
    sorry,but do no tsee the a connection to this WSB related side and this article….
    by the way:look at donau kremsfestival in austria…from 28.04.-08.05.2010….we are doing there a WSB-special…and at least myself will give some real books and real calligraphics to the public/audience…

    all the best

    onno ennoson

  5. Mr L, that upstairs room is a treat. I don’t think much of Elizabeth’s stock otherwise – too much of a Top-40 approach to fiction especially if you ask me – but I have wandered through that room a few times just for the fun of it.
    I remember Mostly and Mainly Books. They were in Bulwer Street for years but that block has been redeveloped. Mostly Books is now in King William Road Bayswater. It must be close by That Food Shop if you know that.
    There’s a Bill Campbell’s second hand bookstore listed at 48 High St in Freo. Also, Books Et Cetera in North Perth is worth a visit (but be prepared for a long and rambling conversation with the man at the counter).
    Thanks for your reply and I’ll contact you again here when I have some information about Don.

  6. Dear Gregory,
    It sounds like you are on to the best shops. I know exactly what you mean about dear Vincent in Books etc!
    Please do post if you find out how Don is doing, if he is still going etc.
    Good luck with your fossicking

  7. Mr L,
    I visited Don’s shop in Bayswater today and passed along your good wishes. He didn’t recognise your name, but confessed that his memory was becoming spotty. He said he would mention you to a friend named Milan, if that name means anything to you.
    His new premises are much better than the Bulwer Street setup IMHO. Smaller, but in between a cafe and an antique store. He was quite happy to talk. I didn’t mention it, but I once saw him give a serve to a customer in the old shop. Some young kid (who didn’t look like he’d missed too many meals recently) came to the counter with a book worth about $5, and asked for a student discount. Don said ‘Don’t make me laugh!’ and told him what he thought about students. I had to find something interesting on the shelves so they wouldn’t notice me laughing.
    I mentioned some of the other sellers; sad news there. Mrs Main of Mainly Books passed away – Mr Main has moved further up the street and (I got the impression) is living in one of the new apartment blocks with the bookshop at street level. And Penny has been forced out of her little corner at Fremantle Markets. The whole Market site was sold and the new owners racked up the rents. Penny was facing a tripling of her rent, and the fruit and veg retailers have been hit with higher again. Sounds as if they are trying to destroy the markets – we can only surmise what their intentions might be…
    I offered to write down this site’s address for Don but as you said, he is firmly non-internet!
    His street address is Mostly Books, 13 King William St, Bayswater, WA, 6053.

  8. Dear Gregory,
    Thank you very much for the news about Don. I’m so pleased that he is still going and is still in Bayswater- it seems he has moved shop again- we both felt the area was the best in Perth. I shall have to write to him and jog the old buggers memory and enclose a note for Milan, as I used to see a lot of Milan but we lost touch.
    It’s very sad about Mrs Main; I do wish I wasn’t so far away so I could pop by and see how Dennis is. Also sad news about Fremantle markets and Penny too. Good God if they do away with the markets Fremantle will be finished; this is appalling news.
    Yes, I remember well how one of Don’s pet hates was always students, I remember that too. He once told me that was one of the reasons he prefered Bayswater- less students!
    Thanks again so much for your news here. I’m very glad that I mentioned Perth on my comment on this little article and you happenened to pick up on it. All the best with your secondhand bookshop shenanigans. If you are really serious about it you could always get to the various big charity booksales like the one at UWA; afraid I can’t remember when abouts in the year that is, but it’s worth getting there early that first day and seeing what serendipidy has in store for you. This is the way to do it I think; I have yet to buy a book online and yet I’m never short of either good things to read or good memories of the circumstances in which I uncovered various books!
    Regards, Mr L

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